A local area network, or LAN, is a network of devices that exist in the same physical space. LANs are a big part of internet infrastructure. They can range in size from a few phones connected over one router to a larger ecosystem of computers and servers, like those you might find in an office or a school. So how does a LAN work, and can you set one up yourself?
A local area network provides many practical benefits. Devices connected to a LAN can communicate easily, making hardware integration simpler. Think of the devices in your home: When you cast a movie from your laptop to your smart TV or send a file directly from your phone to your printer, you’re taking advantage of your wireless LAN.
The most common form of wireless LAN is probably the router network. Routers provide Wi-Fi to homes, offices, and other relatively small spaces. As soon as a device connects to that router, a LAN has been formed.
You don’t technically need an internet connection to make a LAN, and you can even build one with cables rather than Wi-Fi. Early multiplayer gaming systems relied on physical LANs, with wires running between the connected computers. However, Wi-Fi has unlocked the true potential of the LAN and now allows us to link our smart devices with the tap of a button.
There are two types of LAN that are commonly used.
The peer-to-peer model is the type of local area network you probably use most. This kind of LAN is a network in which all the devices operate and process data individually, rather than operating through a central server.
Your home network is a peer-to-peer LAN – all the devices on your Wi-Fi are connected, but they all act and store data individually.
The client/server LAN is the other main type of local area network. In this system, multiple devices (referred to as clients) connect to a central server.
A good example of the client/server LAN is a library in a school or university, with multiple computers. Students log in to access stored files, emails, premium software suites, and other applications that are kept on the main server. None of this data is actually being stored on the individual computers. They are just the “clients” on this LAN.
Using a client/server LAN allows administrators to have much more control over how clients operate and what they can access. Client/server LANs are used in most medium-to-large-scale businesses as well as educational establishments and government departments.
The local area network is just one kind of network. It should be distinguished from two other network types: WAN and MAN.
A metropolitan area network is a network of connected devices that spans a much larger area than a LAN. Typically, a MAN includes devices from across a metropolitan-sized space, like a town or city.
Most MANs are collections of LANs, linked using fiber-optic cables. A college with multiple campuses dispersed across a city might use this method to keep all its users connected to the same network. Likewise, a business or government agency with several offices could benefit from using a MAN.
When an organization is setting up a MAN, it often makes use of “dark cables”: fiber-optic cables that are already in the city’s infrastructure but not in use yet. These can be leased from whatever internet service provider owns them.
A wide area network is the largest of the three network types. These networks operate on exactly the same principle as the MAN, connecting multiple LANs. The distinction comes in their scale: while a MAN covers a city-wide area, a WAN could be spread over a country, a continent, or even the entire globe.
WANs use similar connective techniques to MANs – predominantly fiber-optic cables. However, they can also employ telephone wires and radio waves to link widely dispersed networks. And just like a MAN, their primary users are large companies, government bodies, and other organizations that need to maintain a widespread network.
You might want to set up your own LAN. It can be a simple process. Here’s how to do it.
A LAN is just a network of connected devices, so to set one up you just need multiple devices, ideally (but not essentially) with internet connectivity, and a way to link them.
To set up a simple LAN, you can use a wireless access point (WAP), like a wireless router or a mobile device with its own hotspot. Many household items, like printers, speakers, and TVs, now connect to Wi-Fi. The more of these devices you have, the bigger your LAN will be.
Alternatively, you can use an ethernet cable to connect your devices, provided they each have an ethernet port built into them.
Wireless local area networks are the easiest to set up. Just turn on your WAP (in most cases, a router or hotspot-enabled device), and connect your other smart devices to its Wi-Fi. Most WAPs should have a password or pin that allows for secure access, so make sure you know that in advance before trying to connect other devices.
You can also create a peer-to-peer LAN with physical cables. Most household routers contain multiple ethernet ports. Plug one end of an ethernet cable into a port on your router, and then connect the other to your device, either using a built-in port or (if your device doesn’t have a port) through an adapter cable. You can link as many devices to your router as there are ethernet ports.
LANs are sometimes targeted by hackers and bad actors. To enhance your LAN security, follow these simple steps.